THE PLOT: ‘Theatre of Marvels’ by Lianne Dillsworth is a historical novel about a mixed-race actress in Victorian London. Zillah has left the slums of St Giles to star as ‘The Great Amazonia’ – a savage from deepest, darkest Africa. However, she begins to feel uncomfortable with the role after a distinguished Black man approaches her following a performance. When a new act is introduced – a Black woman with vitiligo exhibited as the ‘The Leopard Lady’ – Zillah is forced to confront the dark side of her profession. And when the woman goes missing, Zillah is determined to find and save her…
RATING: This was such a fun and easy book to read. I loved the portrayal of a strong female protagonist of colour in a historical novel and the realistic range of Black characters gave me all the feels. Plus, I was fully engaged in the mystery and enjoyed the Victorian setting. For most of my reading experience I was set to give this novel four stars; however, I really disliked the ending so I’ve docked half a point… #SorryNotSorry (don’t worry, I will round up on Goodreads).
GOOD BITS: The character of Zillah is the heart and soul of this book. Even though she can be a little annoying, I rooted for her so much and was completely immersed in her story. This is, in part, due to the excellent world-building. The author took time to establish the setting and character, which was brilliant because it grounded me in the story before the mystery started. Also, I liked the first-person past-tense voice. It’s usually my least favourite POV in contemporary novels but it worked well as it felt like Zillah told her own story. This also means it would be a great audiobook.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: I stumbled a little while reading this book due to the somewhat simple storytelling and unnecessary repetition. However, I chalked these up to it being a debut novel and was too busy enjoying the story to care. Despite this, I cannot forgive the ending. It’s so hard not to give spoilers but I didn’t think the climax was dramatic enough and then a secondary character seems to completely switch their personality for no discernible reason. I mean, sometimes it’s good to have an unexpected ending but not when you have to betray the characters to get it…!
OVERALL: I’d recommend this book to lovers of ‘Fingersmith’ by Sarah Waters and ‘Great Expectations’ by Charles Dickens. I’ve also heard it compared to Stacey Halls and Sara Collins, although I haven’t read their books. I feel like there are very few writers of colour in historical fiction and this book is a great achievement, so I’d definitely encourage other people to buy it. But, be warned – just stop forty pages before the end to save yourself some WTF moments.
Thank you to Hutchinson Heinemann for my #gifted copy. This is another book ticked off my Black Debut Authors 2022 list and it’s available to buy now.